D.G. Martin: A new look at North Carolina’s progressivism

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Is North Carolina a “progressive state”? Was it ever one?
Most North Carolinians, whatever their political persuasion, would argue that our state is very progressive, particularly when compared to other states in the South.
About 60 years ago, in his book “Southern Politics in State and Nation,” V.O. Key gave substantial support to North Carolina’s progressive self-image. He wrote that our state was a “progressive plutocracy,” and that it was more progressive than other southern states in industrial development, public education, and race relations.
Duke professor William Chafe refers to North Carolina’s “progressive mystique.” Some others talk about a “progressive myth,” asserting that the “progressive” aspects of our state have usually been in service to the interests of the powerful “elites.”
However, North Carolina’s partisans proudly affirm that our state’s sharp progress in business, education, expanding opportunity, racial justice and quality of life justify the state’s progressive reputation. “If we are not progressive,” they say, “why are so many people from other states moving here?”
A new book, “The New Politics of North Carolina,” edited by Western Carolina professors Christopher Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts, asks if North Carolina deserves this “progressive” designation. The editors’ conclusion, after a long survey of North Carolina politics and government, is “…North Carolina is no longer the regional leader, losing ground to peripheral South states such as Florida, Texas, and Virginia. Georgia, North Carolina’s Deep South neighbor, can also legitimately claim to have surpassed North Carolina in terms of progressivism.”
How do Cooper and Knotts support this “heresy”? They recruited a number of their academic colleagues to examine various topics in North Carolina political and governmental life, compared with that of other Southern states and the rest of the country. The essays collected in the new book summarize their findings in the areas of partisan politics, public opinion, public and private interest groups, media, state and local government operations and two specific public policy areas, the environment and education.
The contributors use various methodologies to compare North Carolina’s “progressivism” with those in other states. So, readers are free to challenge both the selection of information to describe North Carolina’s situation and the basis for comparison with other states.
Putting aside for a moment the book’s conclusion about our state’s “progressive” status, the in-depth discussion of various aspects of North Carolina’s government operations makes a real contribution to anyone who wants to know how things get done in North Carolina government.
The essays on electoral politics and public opinion in the early chapters should be helpful to new students of North Carolina political history, although the repetitive summaries of that history could slow down serious readers who are searching for the authors’ “new” insights.
At the core of the book are excellent and useful descriptions of the three branches of governments ó their powers, the limits to those powers and the role of individuals in office in determining how the various institutions work.
Especially helpful to me was the essay by Sean Hildebrand and James Svara about the complex interrelationships in North Carolina between state and local governments. Read this part of the book if you wonder why North Carolina cities can annex adjoining areas without state approval (or majority vote) but cannot issue bonds without approval of a state agency.
Now, after reading the book, do I think our state is still a progressive leader?
My opinion, bottom line, North Carolina still leads the pack.
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D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Check his blog and view prior programs at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/